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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

The line between funny and offensive

Kevin Hart attends the 2018 MTV Video Music

Kevin Hart attends the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall in August. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Angela Weiss

At the heart of most humor lies pain. That’s OK when both the humor and the pain derive from a nutty thing a person did, like walking full speed into a nearly invisible sliding glass. It’s also fair game when the pain and humor derive from something that happened, like a man getting hit on the head by a hard-driven golf ball while standing in his new in-laws’ swimming pool at their fairway-adjacent home.

It’s particularly hilarious when the terrible occurrences and mistakes plague the storyteller. In that spirit, I admit that both of the above happened to me, in two hours.

It was comedy gold!

But what comedian Kevin Hart said and tweeted about homosexuality years ago, what got him into so much trouble that he won’t host the Oscars this year, crossed a serious line that must be spelled out clearly. Hart called someone a “fat faced fag” on Twitter in 2009. He tweeted in 2011, “Yo if my son comes home & try’s 2 play with my daughters doll house I’m going to break it over his head and say ‘stop that’s gay,’ ” and made a similar comment to his son in a stand-up routine in a 2010 comedy special. In each case, he was creating humor by denigrating a thing that people are, gay, not a thing they did or experienced. That’s wrong.

It’s true that the acceptability of disparaging gay people has disappeared with astonishing rapidity, far faster than with many other groups. Revisiting Eddie Murphy’s 1980s blockbuster shows “Raw” and “Delirious” recently, I was stunned at vicious gay slurs that, 30 years ago, I didn’t cringe at. But that was wrong, standards have changed, and Hart’s response when confronted in December over these comments was terrible. He was whiny and self-pitying over attacks he deserved, rather than truly apologetic and remorseful about his unjustified attacks on others.

The funniest thing I’ve ever seen, a moment that left me writhing on the floor in laugh-agony, was rendered that hilarious because of the pain it caused my wife and daughter. We were, along with a couple of old friends, chatting at the table after a jovial dinner when the other couple’s cherubic 4-year-old daughter, sent to the den to watch television, returned beaming with pride. In her hands was the box to the 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle the ladies had nearly completed over a few weeks.

“I cleaned it all up for you, Miss Angela,” little Reagan said, proffering the box full of disassembled pieces.

“Well . . . thank you so much, Reagan,” my wife said, as she and my daughter redefined “crestfallen” for a generation and I melted into a puddle of laughter, tears and awareness that I’d be sleeping in the guest room for weeks.

The humor had victims, but of an occurrence. It wasn’t about their gender, skin color, sexual orientation, height or any other uncontrollable aspect. My laughter, while deeply unwise, was not immoral.

Hart’s gay-bashing was immoral. The support he’s received, including from gay icon Ellen DeGeneres, who used his appearance on her show to urge Hart’s rehiring as Oscars host, denies the seriousness of anti-gay rhetoric. If it turned out a top comic called someone a “fat-faced [expletive]” on Twitter in 2009, as part of a pattern of black-bashing, no responsible public figure would take that comic’s side. And each of Hart’s (now) three “apologies” has been more self-justification than sincere amends.

Until Hart shows he understands the line he crossed and makes a coherent, meaningful apology that centers on the pain of the people he demeaned and not his own inconvenience at being upbraided, he doesn’t deserve forgiveness. A comedy genius ought to be able to figure this out.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.